Genesis 11: Lessons on God’s Mercy and Grace from the Tower of Babel Revolt

Introduction: In the Bible, the number 11 is associated with chaos. For example, it was an 11-day journey from Mount Horeb to Kadesh-barnea where the Jews rebelled against God (Dt. 1:2). The 12 disciples also fled from Jesus after Judas’ betrayal left only 11 disciples. The eleventh chapter of Genesis also shows the chaos that ensues when mankind rebels against God. In chapter 10, God revealed that the evil ruler Nimrod founded the city of Babylon. In this chapter, He reveals how Nimrod misled the people to rebel against God’s command to spread out and populate the Earth. Nimrod used tyranny, oppression, and deceit to mislead the people into building a tower to rebel against God. Having just witnessed God’s might in destroying the world, the people foolishly followed after Nimrod. They deserved to be wiped out for their rebellion. But God showed His mercy and grace by confusing their language and scattering them as He previously commanded. From this chapter, God reveals seven lessons on the evils within the hearts of mankind and the mercy and grace that He offers to restore all sinners.

First, from mankind’s refusal to spread out and fill the Earth as God commanded, He reveals that mankind’s sinful hearts will cause humanity to rebel against God. Second, from mankind’s decision to follow Nimrod’s rebellion against God, He reveals that He has examined mankind’s hearts and found its desires to be evil. Thus, none are righteous through their own actions. All are in need of a Savior. Third, from God’s division of mankind’s language, He reveals that He divided humanity to protect it from acting in unity upon the evil desires of its heart. But He promises to restore mankind’s common language when it is united under Christ during His Millennial Reign. Fourth, from God’s act of scattering mankind, He reveals that He is sovereign over all. His will cannot be thwarted by the evil plans of either mankind or the devil. God gave Noah’s descendants the command to fill the Earth. After they refused to do this voluntarily, God made it happen by the power of His spoken Word. Fifth, instead of destroying mankind, God showed His mercy and grace by promising to restore mankind through the promised line of descendants leading from Seth to Shem to Abraham. Sixth, through the line that ended with Abraham’s barren wife, God reveals that mankind’s restoration is impossible without God. Finally, from the failure of Abraham’s father (who was an idol worshiper) to reach the Promised Land, God reveals that you must have faith in Him to reach the Promised Land.

1. Mankind’s Refusal to Trust and Obey God. Gen. 11:1-4.

  • Mankind’s refusal to spread out and fill the Earth. God gave mankind a common language because He created mankind in His image. Like His other gifts, this gift was meant to facilitate mankind’s good works (Eph. 2:10). Yet, mankind misused that common language to unite against God and disobey His command to spread across the Earth: “1 Now the whole earth used the same language and the same words. It came about as they journeyed east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. They said to one another, ‘Come, let us make bricks and burn them thoroughly.’ And they used brick for stone, and they used tar for mortar. They said, ‘Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven, and let us make for ourselves a name, otherwise we will be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.’” (Gen. 11:1-4). Nimrod led the people in building the tower of Babel (Gen. 10:9-10). He most likely used force to require the people to build a mighty tower out of bricks, just as Pharaoh used God’s people to build the pyramids out of bricks (Ex. 1:14; 5:14). The Jewish-Roman historian Flavius Josephus, in his Antiquities of the Jews (c. 94 CE), wrote that Nimrod used tyranny to turn the people away from God: “Now it was Nimrod who excited them to such an affront and contempt of God. He was the grandson of Ham, the son of Noah, a bold man, and of great strength of hand. . . . He also gradually changed the government into tyranny, seeing no other way of turning men from the fear of God, but to bring them into a constant dependence on his power...” Like everything else in the Bible, the places and types of structures referenced in this account can be tied to real civilizations. For example, King Ur-Nammu (2,062-2,046 B.C.) was known to build massive ziggurat towers. Just as described in the Bible, the Sumerians used baked bricks to build their ziggurats. They were mostly built with a square or rectangular base to support the tall brick towers. The remains of the approximately 25 small ziggurat ruins have been found. They averaged in height at approximately 170 feet or 50 meters. The famous “Hanging Gardens of Babylon” had trees and shrubs along the terraces. The Great Ziggurat of Babylon was 91 meters (300 ft) in height.1 According to the non-canonized book of Jubilees, the actual Tower of Babel was more than 5,433 cubits or more than 7,000 feet tall: “And they began to build, and in the fourth week they made brick with fire, and the bricks served them for stone, and the clay with which they cemented them together was asphalt which comes out of the sea, and out of the fountains of water in the land of Shinar. And they built it: forty and three years were they building it; its breadth was 203 bricks, and the height [of a brick] was the third of one; its height amounted to 5433 cubits and 2 palms, and [the extent of one wall was] thirteen stades [and of the other thirty stades].” (Jubilees 10:20–21). Many believe that the Tower of Babel was the ziggurat of the pagan temple of Marduk in Babylon. Just like the Genesis text, ancient Sumerian texts also reference a united people with one language. Yet, Moses did not copy this account in the Bible. The Sumerians have no comparable account of their gods confusing their language and scattering their people. The absence of any reference to the scattering of their people may be due to the sudden collapse of the Sumerian empire. During the Third Dynasty of Ur, the Elamites and the Amorites swiftly destroyed the Sumerian civilization.2 God used these peoples as the instrument of His judgment upon the Sumerians. The evil empires of the world are nothing before God’s mighty power: “Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket, and are regarded as a speck of dust on the scales; behold, He lifts up the islands like fine dust . . . All the nations are as nothing before Him, they are regarded by Him as less than nothing and meaningless.” (Is. 40:15, 17). Thus, you must never place your trust in powerful people or nations. You must trust in God alone. “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding.” (Prov. 3:5). If the people had trusted God, they would have obeyed His command to populate the Earth. “As for you, be fruitful and multiply; populate the earth abundantly and multiply in it.” (Gen. 9:7; 9:1). Do you place your complete trust in God’s Word? Or, have you placed your trust in the powerful people and the false idols of the world?

. Hanging Gardens of Babylon [Credit: Brown Brothers]

(The Hanging Gardens of Babylon: Source3)

Pieter Bruegel the Elder ca. 1520 – 1569 (The Tower of Babel (Vienna)) (1563)4

  • Mankind’s ongoing rebellions against God. Nimrod’s rebellion parallels Cain’s rebellion. Cain journeyed east of Eden (Gen. 4:16). Nimrod also led the people east to the land of Shinar (Gen. 11:2). Nimrod had his people build the tower of Babel because he feared being scattered as God previously commanded (Gen. 11:4). Cain also feared being scattered and forced to wander the Earth (Gen. 4:14). Thus, he rebelled against his sentence and became a builder of cities. Yet, while Cain feared retribution, Nimrod feared losing control of the people. He may have built the tower out of a misguided belief that God would flood the Earth again and that the tower made of brick would somehow protect him above the ocean. Nimrod also sought to exalt himself before God through the adulation of his people. The famous Jewish writer Rashi wrote that Nimrod hunted the souls of men by turning them against God.5 According to the Midrash, Nimrod told his people: “God has no right to choose the upper world for himself and to leave the lower world to us; therefore we will build us a tower with an idol on top holding a sword.” According to other writings in the Talmud: “Some among that generation even wanted to war against God in heaven (Talmud Sanhedrin 109a). They were encouraged in this undertaking by the notion that arrows that they shot into the sky fell back dripping with blood, so that the people really believed that they could wage war against the inhabitants of the heavens (Sefer ha-Yashar, Chapter 9:12–36).”6 Thus, Nimrod misled the people as the first of many future anti-Christs. His united government foreshadowed the one-world government that will rebel against God during the end times.

2. Mankind’s Desires and Plans are Evil. Gen. 11:5-6.

  • God’s need to restrain the evils within mankind’s hearts. God examined the hearts of mankind and observed that their evil hearts united them through a common language against Him: “The Lord came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built. The Lord said, ‘Behold, they are one people, and they all have the same language. And this is what they began to do, and now nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them.” (Gen. 11:5-6). Mathew Henry observes that mankind was without excuse following in Nimrod’s rebellion. They had just lived through the Flood: “How soon men forget the most tremendous judgments, and go back to their former crimes! Though the desolations of the deluge were before their eyes, though they sprang from the stock of righteous Noah, yet even during his life-time, wickedness increased exceedingly. Nothing but the sanctifying grace of the Holy Spirit can remove the sinful lusts of the human will, and the depravity of the human heart. God’s purpose was that mankind should form many nations, and people of all lands. In contempt of the Divine will, and against the counsel of Noah, the bulk of mankind united to build a city and a tower to prevent their separation.” (Matthew Henry on Genesis 11).7

  • None are holy before God. This same evil plagues all mankind today. Like the people of Nimrod’s day, all have fallen short because of their evil hearts: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” (Ro. 3:23). “Indeed, there is not a righteous man on earth who continually does good and who never sins.” (Ecc. 7:20). “And do not enter into judgment with Your servant, for in Your sight no man living is righteous.” (Ps. 143:2). “Can mankind be just before God? Can a man be pure before his Maker?” (Job 4:17). Thus, all are in need of a Savior. All are in need of Christ.

3. Mankind is Divided to Protect Itself from Its Evil Desires and Plans. Gen. 11:7.

  • God’s division of mankind’s language. To keep mankind from using God’s gifts for evil, the Triune God was forced to descend from heaven and partially undue His act of creation by dividing the peoples of the Earth: “Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.’” (Gen. 11:7). Being created in God’s image, mankind was meant to speak in unity in a single language: “Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness;”’ (Gen. 1:26(a)). God divided mankind to protect it from its own evil desires. When the anti-Christ unites mankind into a single government, he will exploit the evil in mankind’s hearts to cause the people to rebel against God. If the future antiChrist follows the pattern of Nimrod, he will likely insist that all the peoples use a single language.

God confuses the people’s ability to speak in one language8

  • God is sovereign over your tongue. God, not the devil, is in control of your ability to speak with others. He took away that gift when mankind misused it to conspire against Him. He can also take away your speech when you misuse it: “Confuse, O Lord, divide their tongues, for I have seen violence and strife in the city.” (Ps. 55:9). “The LORD said to him, ‘Who has made man's mouth? Or who makes him mute or deaf, or seeing or blind? Is it not I, the LORD?”’ (Ex. 4:11). “Moreover, I will make your tongue stick to the roof of your mouth so that you will be mute and cannot be a man who rebukes them, for they are a rebellious house.” (Ez. 3:26). “Now the hand of the LORD had been upon me in the evening, before the refugees came. And He opened my mouth at the time they came to me in the morning; so my mouth was opened and I was no longer speechless.” (Ez. 33:22). “And at once his mouth was opened and his tongue loosened, and he began to speak in praise of God.” (Lk. 1:64). Do your words bring glory to God?

  • The restoration of mankind’s one language. Mankind’s intended one language will one day be restored during Christ’s Millennial Reign. God foreshadowed the restoration of mankind’s one language at Pentecost when the Holy Spirit miraculously allowed the peoples from different countries to understand each other: “They were amazed and astonished, saying, ‘Why, are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we each hear them in our own language to which we were born?” (Acts 2:7-8). Believers will again speak one language when they gather before Jesus during the Millennial Reign: “For then I will give to the peoples purified lips, that all of them may call on the name of the LORD, to serve Him shoulder to shoulder.” (Zeph. 3:9). “Now it will come about that in the last days the mountain of the house of the LORD will be established as the chief of the mountains, and will be raised above the hills; and all the nations will stream to it.” (Is. 2:2). “After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands;” (Rev. 7:9). Do you speak words of restoration over your brothers and sisters who have fallen into sin? Or, do your words cause others pain?

4. Mankind Cannot Thwart the Will of God. Gen. 11:8-9.

  • God’s scattering of the peoples of the Earth. After confusing the language of the peoples, God scattered them to fulfill His prior commandment to Noah:So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of the whole earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of the whole earth.” (Gen. 11:8-9). The word “Babel” in Hebrew means the “gate of God.” It symbolized the blind misguided ambition of mankind. God’s judgment formed the climax in a perfect literary pattern for the Jews who memorized in Hebrew:

  • Pride comes before destruction. Pride led Nimrod to disobey God’s command to fill the Earth. His pride led to the destruction of his kingdom: ‘“Though Babylon should ascend to the heavens, and though she should fortify her lofty stronghold, from Me destroyers will come to her,’ declares the LORD.” (Jer. 51:53). ‘“Though you build high like the eagle, though you set your nest among the stars, from there I will bring you down,’ declares the LORD.” (Obadiah 1:4). “Though his loftiness reaches the heavens, and his head touches the clouds,” (Job 20:6). “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before stumbling.” (Prov. 16:18). “When pride comes, then comes dishonor, but with the humble is wisdom.” (Prov. 11:2). “Before destruction the heart of man is haughty, but humility goes before honor.” (Prov. 18:12). “A man’s pride will bring him low, but a humble spirit will obtain honor.” (Prov. 29:23). Is there any pride in your heart that you need to repent of?

  • God scatters the proud. To keep the people from uniting in sin, God can and does scatter sinners. He even scattered His own people when they rebelled against Him: “He has done mighty deeds with His arm; He has scattered those who were proud in the thoughts of their heart.” (Lk. 1:51). “For, behold, Your enemies, O LORD, for behold, Your enemies will perish; all who do iniquity will be scattered.” (Ps. 92:9). “God arise, let His enemies be scattered, and let those who hate Him flee before Him.” (Ps. 68:1(b)). “Then it came about when the ark set out that Moses said, ‘Rise up, O LORD! And let Your enemies be scattered, and let those who hate You flee before You.’” (Nu. 10:35). “Arise, O LORD, do not let man prevail; let the nations be judged before You.” (Ps. 9:19). Do your words unite people in service to God or for some worldly purpose?

  • God’s will cannot be thwarted. Although Nimrod sought to prevent God’s Word from coming to pass, no force on Earth can stop the will of God. “All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, but He does according to His will in the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of earth; and no one can ward off His hand Or say to Him, ‘What have You done?”’ (Dan. 4:35). “ . . . For who resists His will?” (Ro. 9:19(b)). “Were He to snatch away, who could restrain Him? Who could say to Him, ‘What are You doing?’” (Job 9:12). Are you trying to resist God’s will in your life?

  • Satan will also seek to have people exalt him. In seeking to exalt himself in a high tower before God, Nimrod acted like Satan: “But you said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God, and I will sit on the mount of assembly In the recesses of the north.’ ‘I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.’ Nevertheless you will be thrust down to Sheol, to the recesses of the pit.” (Is. 14:13-15). “Let no one in any way deceive you, for it will not come unless the apostasy comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, displaying himself as being God.” (2 Thess. 2:3-4). “He will speak out against the Most High and wear down the saints of the Highest One, and he will intend to make alterations in times and in law; and they will be given into his hand for a time, times, and half a time.” (Dan. 7:25). “Then the king will do as he pleases, and he will exalt and magnify himself above every god and will speak monstrous things against the God of gods; and he will prosper until the indignation is finished, for that which is decreed will be done.” (Dan. 11:36). “Son of man, say to the leader of Tyre, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD, because your heart is lifted up and you have said, ‘I am a god, I sit in the seat of gods In the heart of the seas’; yet you are a man and not God, although you make your heart like the heart of God’” (Ez. 28:2). Is the Holy Spirit alone guiding your choices? Or, is the ruler of this world controlling you?

5. Mankind is Promised Restoration Through the Righteous Seed of Shem. Gen. 11:10-26.

  • The righteous line of descendants of Shem leading to Abraham. Although mankind could not escape the evil within their hearts, God remained faithful to His promise to Eve to create a righteous descendant who would restore mankind (Gen. 3:15). To show His faithfulness, God carefully recorded the line of the promised descendants leading to Abraham: “10 These are the records of the generations of Shem. Shem was one hundred years old, and became the father of Arpachshad two years after the flood; 11 and Shem lived five hundred years after he became the father of Arpachshad, and he had other sons and daughters. 12 Arpachshad lived thirty-five years, and became the father of Shelah; 13 and Arpachshad lived four hundred and three years after he became the father of Shelah, and he had other sons and daughters. 14 Shelah lived thirty years, and became the father of Eber; 15 and Shelah lived four hundred and three years after he became the father of Eber, and he had other sons and daughters. 16 Eber lived thirty-four years, and became the father of Peleg; 17 and Eber lived four hundred and thirty years after he became the father of Peleg, and he had other sons and daughters. 18 Peleg lived thirty years, and became the father of Reu; 19 and Peleg lived two hundred and nine years after he became the father of Reu, and he had other sons and daughters. 20 Reu lived thirty-two years, and became the father of Serug; 21 and Reu lived two hundred and seven years after he became the father of Serug, and he had other sons and daughters. 22 Serug lived thirty years, and became the father of Nahor; 23 and Serug lived two hundred years after he became the father of Nahor, and he had other sons and daughters. 24 Nahor lived twenty-nine years, and became the father of Terah; 25 and Nahor lived one hundred and nineteen years after he became the father of Terah, and he had other sons and daughters. 26 Terah lived seventy years, and became the father of Abram, Nahor and Haran.” (Gen. 11:10-26). The righteous genealogy parallels the righteous genealogy of Seth in Genesis chapter five following Cain’s rebellion. In both cases, God included the promised genealogy immediately following mankind’s multiple acts of rebellion. By doing this, He showed that His mercy and grace are greater than the ongoing sins of an ungrateful mankind. Abraham was the culmination of the righteous genealogy. He is listed as the tenth descendant of Shem and the twentieth descendant from Adam. In the Bible, the number 10 symbolizes God’s divine order and the Ten Commandments. Through his faith and obedience, Abraham would bring God’s divine order back to the world.

The Righteous Descendants of Shem (Translated as named or renown or fame)

Son Descendant Translation Countries
Arpachshad (Gen. 10:22; 11:10-12; 1 Chr. 1:17) . . . healer or releaser Chaldeans9 and also possibly Kirkuk, Iraq
Shelah (Gen. 10:24; 11:12-15) mission or sending (Mesopotamia (ancestor of Hebrews)
Eber (Gen. 10:24:11:14-17) (Shelah’s descendant) from the other side (Mesopotamia, also ancestor of Hebrews)10
Peleg (Gen. 10:24; 11:16-19) (Eber’s descendant) divided or division (Also ancestor of Hebrews, descendants lived in Paliga, on the Euphrates, just above the mouth of the Khabur River). (Tower of Babel believed to happen during his life, the geographic division of land bridges also possible during this time)11
Reu (Gen. 11:18-21; 1 Chr. 1:25) (Peleg’s descendant) his friend; his shepherd No nation of his own
Serug (Gen. 11:20-23 (Reu’s descendant) branch No nation of his own
Nahor (Gen. 11:22-25) (Serug’s descendant) Snorting No nation of his own
Terah (Gen. 11:25-32 (Nahor’s descendant) Delay No nation of his own
Abram (Gen. 11:26-32 (Terah’s descendant) Father No nation of his own, yet later given the Promised Land of Israel.

Anonymous (Peleg): 12th century England Canterbury Cathedral stained glass window12

  • The humble line of the promised descendants. Unlike the other descendants of Noah, the descendants leading to Abraham are not listed among the Table of Nations. Abraham’s descendants did not form nations. By the world’s standards, they would have seemed unsuccessful. Yet, God lifts up the meek and the lowly and uses them for His purposes so that He receives the glory. “Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth.” (Matt. 5:5; Ps. 37:11). It is better to strive for the things of God than seek an empty inheritance in the world. “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?” (Mk. 8:36). Have you humbled yourself and sought after the things of God so that His will can be perfected through you?

6. Mankind’s Deliverance is Impossible Without God. Gen. 11:27-30.

  • The barren line ends with Abram and Sarai. Although the genealogy ended with the promise of Abraham, the line could not continue naturally because Abraham’s wife was barren: “27 Now these are the records of the generations of Terah. Terah became the father of Abram, Nahor and Haran; and Haran became the father of Lot. 28 Haran died in the presence of his father Terah in the land of his birth, in Ur of the Chaldeans. 29 Abram and Nahor took wives for themselves. The name of Abram’s wife was Sarai; and the name of Nahor’s wife was Milcah, the daughter of Haran, the father of Milcah and Iscah. 30 Sarai was barren; she had no child.” (Gen. 11:27-30). The continuation of the promised line through Sarai could not continue without God’s intervention. Yet, with faith in God, all things are possible: “And looking at them Jesus said to them, ‘With people this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.’” (Matt. 19:26). “Is anything too difficult for the LORD? At the appointed time I will return to you, at this time next year, and Sarah will have a son.” (Gen. 18:14). “I know that You can do all things, and that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted.” (Job 42:2).

7. Mankind Cannot Reach the Promised Land Without Faith. Gen. 11:31-32.

  • The failure of Terah to reach the Promised Land. While Abraham was called to reach the Promised Land, his father Terah lacked the faith to complete that journey: “31 Terah took Abram his son, and Lot the son of Haran, his grandson, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, his son Abram’s wife; and they went out together from Ur of the Chaldeans in order to enter the land of Canaan; and they went as far as Haran, and settled there. 32 The days of Terah were two hundred and five years; and Terah died in Haran.” (Gen. 11:31-32). Abraham received God’s call when he was still living in Ur of the Chaldeans (Acts 7:2-4). He most likely pestered his father Terah to move to the Promised Land with him. Terah, however, never made it. He lacked the faith to make it to the Promised Land because he worshiped false idols. “Joshua said to all the people, ‘Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, from ancient times your fathers lived beyond the River, namely, Terah, the father of Abraham and the father of Nahor, and they served other gods.’” (Josh. 24:2). When Jacob, Abram’s grandson, went back to Abram’s relatives, he found that they were still worshiping idols. Because only Abraham was ready to break from the idols that his family worshiped, God’s calling would later be limited to Abraham and Sarah alone (Gen. 12:1). “And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.” (Heb. 11:6). Do you have faith to trust God on your path to the Promised Land?

Abram and Sara move from Ur to Haran13

  1. Kenneth Mathews, “The New American Commentary: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture” Genesis 1-11:26, Vol. 1A, (B&H Publishing Group Nashville Tenn. 1996) p. 468-73.↩︎

  2. Midrash HaGadol cited in Yishai Chasidah, Encyclopedia of Biblical Personalities: Anthologized from the Talmud, Midrash, and Rabbinic Writings (Brooklyn, NY: Shaar Press, 1992), p. 417.↩︎

  3. Chaldeans, as well as an ancestor of Abraham (Genesis 11:12-26.)↩︎

  4. The Hebrews have a similar translation to their name as “ones from beyond”.↩︎